Monthly Archives: October 2021

A Song of Tears, Laughter and Hope

TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Psalm 126

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

Prayer of the Day: Eternal light, shine in our hearts. Eternal wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance. Eternal compassion, have mercy on us. Turn us to seek your face, and enable us to reflect your goodness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

May those who sow in tears
   reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
   bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
   carrying their sheaves. Psalm 126:5-6.

The old hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves” was written by American author, evangelist and composer of gospel hymns Knowles Shaw. It was inspired by the words of this Sunday’s psalm. (For a fuller analysis of the psalm itself, see my Post for Sunday, March 13, 2016) It is also probably the first piece of sacred music I ever heard. The hymn was a favorite of my mother. She used to sing it frequently when going about her work around the house. That is, in fact, one of my earliest memories of her. I recall trying to sing along, thinking all the time that the refrain “bringing in the sheaves” was actually “bringing in the sheets.” It made sense to me because that was a good part of what Mom did on any given day. Although we had a decrepit washing machine in our basement, we did not own a dryer and could not afford one. So, in order to minimize trips to the laundromat, Mom would make liberal use of our cloths line where she hung our freshly washed laundry out to dry. Quite naturally, I assumed that Mom was singing about the work she was actually doing.

Maybe I was not so far off the mark. Of course, I learned at some point (I can’t recall just when) that the hymn was not about laundry, but the work of planting, irrigating and harvesting-work that is hard, sometimes unrewarding and, once completed, needs to be done all over again the following year. This is the song of exiles returning to a ruined land with a dream of its restoration planted in their hearts by a prophet. It is the hymn of a people beginning to come to grips with the gaping lacuna between its hope for a brighter future and the present dark realities of having to rebuild its culture and civilization nearly from scratch. Thiers was work that could easily be undone by bad weather, pests or the violence of invading armies. It was work that could bring one to tears of sorrow and anxiety at the onset but promised tears of joy in the end. Like growing crops, doing the wash is a repetitious task that seems to have no end. While it might not occasion a joyful celebration, there is a still a sense of relief and satisfaction in having completed a load of wash and gotten everything folded and back where it belongs.

I also learned over time that, despite her over all cheerful countenance, Mom carried heavy burdens about which my childish mind remained blissfully ignorant. She was a “stay at home mom” when I was small, caring for me, my younger sister and my two other teenage siblings. In the depths of the great depression, Mom left college in her second year to find work to support herself. Her dream of finishing her degree program and pursuing a career died when she married my father and had us kids. Of course, in today’s world that would not have been an insurmountable barrier. Today we see many women in all stages of life entering college to begin or complete their studies and pursue careers. Few such opportunities existed when my mother was young. I do not believe I ever fully appreciated the sense of loss Mom felt for the possibilities precluded by the life choices she made.

Mom was not at all bitter about the way her life unfolded. Graditude for a life well lived was deeply imbedded in her character. Regret and resentment were not part of her DNA. But she was determined that her own four children would never find themselves in a situation where they had to choose between a college education and family obligations. She was committed to putting all four of us kids through college and sending us out into the world with an education. For that reason, every penny not spent for essentials went into college savings. For that reason, too, my family frequently did without amenities such as a clothes dryer. Whatever extra work such austerity generated was simply part of the price Mom was willing to pay to give us kids a shot at the dream which eluded her. That is what made her mundane house work-such as bringing in the sheets-an occasion for song. In every chore she did, Mom was sowing the seeds of her children’s future in anticipation of their one day reaping a rich harvest.

Much of our discipleship consists of work done in hope. We write out a check each week for the support of our congregations; show up to help with the neighborhood food distribution program; visit the sick; raise our children; care for our aging parents; teach Sunday School and Confirmation; speak the truth in love with firmness, compassion and courage. All of this can become tedious, repetitious and tiring. But we do it with songs of joy-even when we have to sing through our tears. We do it because, like the returning exiles, we are convinced that we are planting seeds for a better future, a future that God has promised. That future is a planet where all creatures can live, breath and thrive together in a sustainable fashion. It is a future in which no person need fear discriminationon in our schools and workplaces on account of their skin color, accent, national origin or the persons they love. It is a future in which no children ever have to wonder where the next meal is coming from, where they will spend the night or why they are being abused and neglected. It is a future where women and girls no longer fear sexual harassment and violence in our streets, college campuses and work places. The dream of God’s will done on earth as in heaven shapes everything we do. It is for this reason that Mom’s work was done with joyful confidence that she would one day “come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.” Or perhaps sheets.

Here is the full text of Knowles Shaw’s hymn.

  1. Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
    Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
    Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
    We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
    • Refrain:
      Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
      We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves;
      Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
      We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
  2. Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
    Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
    By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
    We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. (Refrain)
  3. Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
    Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
    When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
    We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. (Refrain)

Source: This hymn is in the public domain. Knowles Shaw (1834 –1878) was born in southwestern Ohio, but his family moved to Rushville, Indiana when he was a few weeks old. He was a member of the Churches of Christ, also known as the Christian Church or Disciples of Christ at the time. Shaw’s father died when he was only ten, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings. Shaw was quick to learn most anything he put his hand to. He mastered shoemaking, cradle making, carpentry, watch repair and sewing. He also taught himself to play the violin his father had left him. Shaw was a prolific evangelist, known for his wit, knowledge of the Bible and ability to generate and maintain rapport with an audience. He baptized over eleven thousand people in his ministry. As noted above, Shaw was the author of the above hymn as well as others. You can read more about Knowles Shaw and sample more of his work at the following site.

Getting to the Top in The Kingdom of God

TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness for all the peoples on earth. Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” Mark 10:39-40.

It is hard to fault James and John. They are only doing what every guidance counselor, employment agency and self-help career guide tells us to do, namely, to “sell ourselves.” You don’t get ahead simply by showing up every day, doing your job and keeping your nose to the grind stone. You have to be noticed, you need to stand out, you must “put yourself out there” if you want to succeed. And, of course, there is more to it than a bigger payday. Everyone wants to be recognized, to count for something and to have something to show for a lifetime of work. Those of us who serve as ministers in Christ’s church are supposed to be beyond all such vanity. But you don’t have to spend much time in a group of clergy to detect the “one upsmanship” that goes on. Who among us hasn’t fantasized about being elected to a high ecclesiastical office, or called to a large and prestigious church or getting a coveted tenured teaching position at a seminary or the religion department of an Ivy League school? Of course, there is nothing wrong with pursuing any of these positions for the right reasons. But therein lies the rub. We are typically the least qualified to evaluate our own motives. The hardest lies to see through are the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves. I have no doubt that James and John were, at least in part, motivated by a desire to draw nearer to Jesus and share more deeply in his mission. But it seems obvious that there was also a strong element of selfish ambition. The disciples were, like us, at the same time saints and sinners.  

My first pastoral call was to a small church in Teaneck, New Jersey. Like most northern New Jersey Lutheran Churches, it was top heavy age wise and struggling to meet its annual budget. Like many other churches, it leased out space to other non-prophets, including an Alcoholic’s Anonymous group, to make ends meet. I arrived at Our Saviour’s Lutheran filled with all the zeal, idealism and lack of real world experience twenty-six year old seminary grads typically possess. I knew the odds were long for this church to survive the decade, but I was determined to be the pastor it needed to thrive and do significant ministry to the community. I was ready to pour my all into Our Saviour’s. If we went down, I was determined we would go down swinging for Jesus with our last breath.

It could not have been more than a couple of weeks into my ministry at Our Saviour’s that I met Jack. He was a tough old Irishman who had come into Lutheranism by marriage to a Norwegian girl from Brooklyn. Jack was a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge. He started and ran a jewelry business in New York City until crippling arthritis forced him to sell out and retire. He had a wonderful sense of humor, a quick wit and profound faith. Jack had just come home from the hospital and was convalescing after a heart attack. I drove out to his house in order to bring him communion. We got to talking and he asked my how and when I received my call to ministry. After relating my experience and my eagerness to do ministry in Teaneck, Jack, never one to mince words, asked me, “How do you know God isn’t through with this church and that God called you here just to keep it alive for a few more years so the AA group has a place to meet?”

Though I tried not to show it, I was angered, insulted and hurt by that question. How dare Jack suggest that my call amounted to nothing more than playing hospice nurse for dying church? How dare he suggest that God would call me to pastor a church that God had already given up on? How dare Jack suggest that my work was so hopeless and devoid of meaning? Did he really believe God thought so little of me, my faith and my abilities?

Over the course of many years, I have thought about that conversation many times. Lately, I have begun to entertain a different set of questions. What if God needed to keep an otherwise dying church alive for another decade so that Alcoholics Anonymous could continue its redemptive work of rebuilding lives shattered by addiction? What if God were deeply interested in the individuals fighting for their sobriety and needed them for the work of establishing God’s gentle reign? Is it for me to pitch a fit because I don’t get to be at the forefront of the Kingdom’s advance? Is it for me complain because God needs me for a pawn rather than a bishop, knight or rook? Having been enlisted in God’s army, do I have a right to choose where, how and in what capacity I serve? Whose church, mission and ministry is it anyway? Since when do my needs, hopes, dreams and aspirations trump the needs of God’s coming reign?

Consider the following parable. At the end of time, when the messianic banquet had been set, the saints could not help but notice that there was at Jesus’ right hand at the head of the table, a woman gloriously dressed and bathed in light. Some thought that it must be the Virgin Mary. Others thought she must be Mary of Magdala or perhaps Lydia of Philippi or another great saint. Finally, one of the saints worked up the courage to ask, “Lord, who is that at your right hand?” The Lord answered, “Ah, that is my Sophia.” Jesus went on to explain, “There was one day when I was so despondent from being so thoroughly misunderstood, so crushed under the weight of constant attacks, so weary of dealing day after day with stupid questions, pointless arguments and overwhelmed by oceans of human suffering that I was ready to give up. I felt as though I could not go on one more day. That is when Sophia showed up with her sweet smelling perfume, pouring it over my fevered head, rubbing my scalp and massaging my tired feet. That delightful scent and the touch of those caring hands were just enough of what I needed right then to recapture my vision and zeal for God’s kingdom. I declared that wherever the gospel was preached, her act of kindness would be remembered in her honor-and can you believe it? That blockhead evangelist forgot to record her name! You can’t find good help anywhere anymore. Anyway, you are all here with me today because she was there for me then.”

Jesus tells us that “many that are first will be last, and the last first.” Mark 10:31. It may well be that the places of honor at the messianic banquet will not be filled by the Twelve, Augustine, Aquinas, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa nor anyone else we would expect. Perhaps those at Jesus right and left hand will be people neither we nor history recognize. They might be just ordinary folks who offered a hug, a kind word, a helping hand or a bottle of ointment at just the right time to change the trajectory of a life, a movement or even the course of history. Any act of kindness, mercy and compassion has ripple effects unforeseen and unforeseeable. That is so because the right hand of God is everywhere making use of these moments to move us closer to the day when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. God’s hand turns up in the most unexpected times and places. The privilege of being there is not an honor to be achieved. It is, like all of God’s good gifts, a matter of sheer grace.     

Here is a poem about someone who might just be at Jesus’ right hand.

Roses in the Subway

The ground beneath us rumbles

As the crowded cars roll by.

The old bag lady mumbles.

A cranky baby cries.

The weeping of a saxophone

Cuts through the stagnant air.

A million soulless drones head home

Their faces worn with care.

None stops to drop a dime

Into the frail musician’s case.

Everyone is pressed for time

And loath to break the pace.

This cavern deep beneath the ground.

Which knows not night or day,

Is where the wretched folk are found

Who have no place to stay.

Yet in these very bowels of hell

She hums a merry tune.

The sweet scents of her wares dispel

The stench with breaths of June.

Her smiles chase the blues away

Her laughter mocks the gloom.

She sells roses in the subway,

Places flowers on the tomb.

Anonymous c. 2001

The Myth of Ownership

TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Psalm 90:12-17

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Mark 10:21-22.


Here is where the strictest biblical literalists falter. While there are still plenty of folks who insist that the words of Jesus in last week’s gospel seeming to equate remarriage after divorce with adultery must be taken at face value with simple and unquestioning faith, these same people become surprisingly sophisticated (or perhaps “sophistic” is the better term) when it comes to interpreting this Sunday’s gospel. Some insist that this admonition is for the rich and not for common working, mortgage paying, over taxed citizens like us. But just a few lines later we learn that the twelve disciples had already left everything to follow Jesus. Thus, the command to relinquish one’s possessions is not only for the 1%, but for all of us. It is just that the rich have more to lose. Others spiritualize this text, claiming it only means that we should be willing and ready to relinquish our worldly goods if and when Jesus ever calls us to do so. The problem is, Jesus is calling us to that renunciation now. All of these hermeneutical maneuvers call to mind the stern admonition of my homiletics professor, the late Rev. Sheldon Tostengaard: “Don’t ever let me catch you trying to explain what Jesus meant. Jesus meant what he said and if you can’t handle it, get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who can.”

Of course, none of this is to say that a text has no context or that we can simply import biblical passages from the First Century into the Twenty-first as though nothing has changed since then. I believe that a cursory look at how property rights were viewed in the biblical world is helpful to understanding what Jesus is telling us. But I am afraid it won’t make his words any easier for us to digest. We start with the basic proposition that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.” Psalm 24:1. Thus, we don’t own anything in the absolute sense, not even ourselves. As the old hymn has it, “We give thee but thine own, what ‘er the gift may be./All that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”  Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 686 (text by William W. How, 1823-1897).

Even God’s gift of the Promised Land to Israel was not an outright grant. Possession of the land came with conditions: Labor laws ensuring that all people, animals and the land itself were given ample rest from the burdens of work Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Leviticus 25:1-7); just and impartial courts of law (Deuteronomy 16:18-20); requirements for equal rights for all inhabitants of the land-including widows, orphans and resident aliens (Deuteronomy 10:18-20); unconditional release of all indebtedness every seven years (Deuteronomy 15:1-6) and a safety net ensuring sustenance for the poor, both citizen and non-citizen (Leviticus 19:9-10). Of particular importance was the Jubilee to be celebrated every forty-nine years during which encumbered land and indentured servants were automatically returned to their families. Leviticus 25:8-12. Clearly, the wellbeing of Israel’s people, particularly the most vulnerable among them, trumped commercial interests and property rights.

Though the Ten Commandments are publicly displayed everywhere from courthouse lawns to refrigerator magnets, the all important preamble is nearly always omitted. Before any command is given, these words are uttered: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:1-2; Deuteronomy 5:6. The God who addresses Israel is the God of slaves who abhors slavery and bondage. This God will not have God’s chosen people devolve into yet another Egypt in which the value of persons is determined by their place in a societal hierarchy. God will not have God’s people enslaving the resident aliens within their borders as they were enslaved under Pharaoh. God wills for Israel to be a free people and freedom is secured by adherence to laws impartially enforced that ensure protection from economic oppression, poverty and discrimination. This is done by regulating the economy so that it serves the wellbeing of all Israelites.

Oddly, a great many persons who identify as Christian these days define freedom in precisely opposite terms. Freedom, they claim, is liberation from government regulation of all kinds, particularly from those that would “redistribute wealth.” In their view, there is something insidious about taking money or property away from one who earned it and distributing it among those who did not earn or deserve it. While they might grudgingly allow that otherwise blameless people who fall on hard luck through no fault of their own should be given a hand up from the public purse, no such benefits should ever fall into the hands of those whose own poor judgment, folly and lack of work ethic put them in dire situations.

Rather than seeking an economy that serves people, our system appears designed to produce workers capable of serving the economy. Nothing illustrates this trend better than the so called “Common Core Initiative.” According to its website:

“State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.”

It is important to add that, despite any flowery policy language to the contrary, the two or four year college programs are likewise designed to integrate their graduates into the workforce, albeit at a higher level. Education is increasingly market driven. Advertisements for colleges and universities focus less on forming character through a well rounded course of learning and more on their records for placing their graduates in well paying jobs and prestigious positions. It is hardly surprising, then, that programs in art, music, dance and the humanities are first to hit the cutting room floor when public school revenue drops. After all, multinational corporations can hardly expect to turn a profit through municipal orchestras or community theater. Unless you are a child prodigy, you might as well not bother pursuing an education in the fine arts. There is no market for that sort of thing.

Value has but one measure anymore. Our day to day speech is filled with language illustrating our reduction of human worth to dollars and cents. “What is your net worth?” the financial advisor asks her client. “This course will provide you with the skills you need to increase your value.”  “Bottom line,” says the CEO, “we can’t afford to keep these people on.” Everything that really matters is in the balance sheet, income statement and statement of change in financial position. And that is as it should be. The market decides which communities thrive and grow as well as which ones implode when their supporting industries suffer obsolescence, inability to generate profits and closure. That the closure of a factory might have ripple effects destroying surrounding businesses, ripping the very fabric of neighborhoods, families, civic organizations and religious communities is of no concern to an economy designed to increase profits with maximum efficiency.

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with market economies or free enterprise. I am not an economist and thus hardly an expert on the subject, but I happen to think that markets are an inevitable development in any human community. They make it possible for us to share our various skills, talents and possessions for the common good. It is not markets that trouble me, but rather the Market. It seems to me that capitalist ideology elevates the Market to near godhood. Reverence for the Market and its ability to solve our most pressing social ills, if only left unmolested, requires no less than ardent faith. Capitalism has come to operate as this nation’s civil religion. Even questioning the unfettered reign of the market over commerce, education, urban planning and every other aspect of our lives amounts to heresy. In the eyes of too many, an attack on the Market is an attack on the United States and our whole way of life. But I do not accept the dubious proposition that any regulation of the economy amounts to “socialism.” Neither do I believe that we are stuck with a binary choice between ruthless economic exploitation that leaves millions in poverty while enriching the upper one percent of the population on the one hand or some kind of Stalinist tyranny on the other.

I believe that Jesus meant what he said in Sunday’s gospel and more pointedly in Luke’s gospel, namely, that no one can be a disciple of Jesus without renouncing all that one has. Luke 14:33. Consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus reminds us that nothing in our possession is truly our own. We are but stewards who must one day give an accounting for the way in which we have acquired what we possess and the use to which we have put it. Matthew 25 gives us a pretty clear picture of what that accounting looks like. At the last judgment no one is asked about who they loved, their religious affiliation, their marital status, their politics or, evangelicals please take note, whether they have accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior. The nations of the world and their members are asked only how they treated the most vulnerable among them: the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned. Matthew 25:32-41. Late stage capitalism, under which human beings are made subject to the needs of a profit driven economy and property rights are enforced at the expense of human wellbeing, is not biblical and, I would add, unamerican. If the sabbath was made for the wellbeing of human beings and not human beings for the sabbath (Mark 2:27), how much more the economy.      

In sum, I don’t think it is too much to ask those of us who made a comfortable living using the roads, driving the cars, utilizing the technology of communication so abundently available to us to contribute to the wellbeing of those who built that infrastructure by seeing to it that they earn a living wage, have affordable housing, enjoy access to adequate healthcare and have the peace of mind that comes with a secure retirement. I don’t think it is too much to ask that we who have never known hunger in our lives pay a little more at the checkout counter to ensure that those who plant, grow, harvest, process and transport our food to the supermarket for our convenience receive adequate salaries and benefits. I don’t think it is too much to ask that corporations which are able to operate their businesses because citizens like us pay for the police protection, fire protection, legal infrastructure and transpiration systems pay their fair share in maintaining and improving these benefits. I don’t think it is too much to ask that a company around which its workers built their town and community and supplied it with labor for generations compensate that community upon its departure with the resources required to sustain it until it is able to transition to a new economic base. And finally, I don’t think it is too much to ask those of us who possess more of the world’s goods than we need to thrive (and that includes most of us white Christians) to invest the surplus (which is more than a token) in caring for those deemed “least” among us, particularly those at whose expense our success has come to us. Yes, I am talking about redistribution of wealth. I don’t know whether that is socialism, but I do know it is biblical.  

Here is a poem by Marilyn Nelson describing in stark terms capitalism’s ultimate monetization of humanity, namely, slavery.

Worth

Today in America people were bought and sold:
five hundred for a “likely Negro wench.”
If someone at auction is worth her weight in gold,
how much would she be worth by pound? By ounce?
If I owned an unimaginable quantity of wealth,
could I buy an iota of myself?
How would I know which part belonged to me?
If I owned part, could I set my part free?
It must be worth something—maybe a lot—
that my great-grandfather, they say, killed a lion.
They say he was black, with muscles as hard as iron,
that he wore a necklace of the claws of the lion he’d fought.
How much do I hear, for his majesty in my blood?
I auction myself. And I make the highest bid.

Source: Faster Than Light: New and Selected Poems1996-2011. (c. 2012 by Marilyn Nelson; pub. by Louisiana State University Press). Marilyn Nelson (b. 1946) is an American poet, translator and author of several children’s books. She is also the daughter of one of the last of the Tuskegee Airmen. Nelson is a professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut and a former poet laureate of Connecticut. She is a winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature and the Frost Medal. Nelson is also the author of five books of poetry for adults and children. You can read more about Marilyn Nelson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.